David Hume’s Double-Edge Sword


I’m currently in the process of writing a paper on Scottish philosopher David Hume and his empiricism.  As you can probably guess as a theist, I and “Le Bon David” don’t actually agree on much.  Well, I actually take that back.  His Problem of Induction is fascinating and the is/ought gap is very influential on my thinking in ethics.  Even though I’m trying to refute his epistemology, I can’t help but admire the genius of this man.  It would be incredible just to be able to see him debate Immanuel Kant.  Don’t worry, fellow theists.  Despite of my awe, I will still destroy him without remorse!  Muah-hah-hah!

The "jovial skeptic" himself

Needless to write, I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking about him lately, and I think I’ve come to a little problem for Davey and his atheists (hey, that would make a pretty good four-piece alternative band title).  This is inspired from his famed Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.  One of his objections to the argument from design is a fallacy of composition — taking the parts of something and making a conclusion about the whole from them.  Hume, rightfully I might point out, argues the argument from design is guilty of such an incorrect inference.  That, looking at objects in nature, noticing their complexity seems to requires a designer, and then concluding the entire universe needs one too because it isn’t exactly very simple either.  Hume goes on to write we don’t have experience (as an empiricist, Hume loves experience) on how universes are made, and therefore have no basis to make inferences about how ours is made.

If atheists are reading this, they’re all probably nodding their heads in agreement in between eating popcorn and polishing their busts of Hume, but here is where their grins might disappear.

If we follow Hume’s logic to its conclusion, doesn’t that mean we can infer nothing about the universe?  I’m well aware Hume was an immense skeptic and didn’t believe we could gain knowledge of the physical world.  This seems completely detrimental to the scientific method.

Lets apply this to the theory of evolution.  According to it, natural selection is an unguided process, and therefore the universe is unguided or undesigned.  How is this any different from his criticism of the teleological argument?  It’s taking the parts and making a conclusion about the whole.

I see an inconsistency with many atheists who wield Hume’s empiricism as if it was some legendary sword.  Sure, it damages the theism, but it also slashes at the science many atheists hold so dear.  In fact, Hume’s reasoning is such a culprit in more than one instance.  It astonishes me that they fail to recognize this reflexivity.  They eagerly gobble up one  application of his ideas like it’s Thanksgiving and refuse to acknowledge the stomach ache afterwards from over-eating.

Hume’s arguments overall don’t support theism or atheism.  They undercut them both.  There’s a reason Hume is a called a raging skeptic (well, maybe not a raging one until me, but whatever).  This seems entirely obvious to me, almost too obvious.  I wouldn’t say my reasoning is bulletproof, and I’m more than willing to someone pointing how this might be reconciled.  I’m still learning and totally open to some possible solutions epistemologists have proposed.  I just know Hume’s ideas are echoed in naturalism’s epistemology, and therefore naturalists inherit his problems even if they don’t admit or realize it.

Anyway, let me know what you think.

Modus Pownens

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10 thoughts on “David Hume’s Double-Edge Sword

  1. Good post.

    This kind of reminds me of Swinburne’s response to Hume. If we need experience of how universes are made in order to say things about the origin of our universe, then we can’t say things about the mass or temperature of the first state of the universe. But most atheists think that we can say that kind of thing about the first state.

  2. Yeah, it astonishes me that atheists don’t recognize Hume was a skeptic. He didn’t believe we could have knowledge about the external world, and this conclusion, which is very much a following through of Hume’s reasoning is often co-opted by atheists. I only alluded to his attack on causation and his concept of the self are also destructive to science.

    I need to start reading Swinburne and modern theist philosophers. I’m thinking of going on Amazon to get the that three-part trilogy of his starting with the Coherence of theism.

    Thanks for the imput, Occam!

  3. Hi,

    When we read Hume, we find that he eventually leads us to solipsism by experience. We cannot believe that there is a world independent of us, or that there are other minds.

    Once more, we cannot hold that there is anything external to us causing our “Impressions”. This goes beyond our perceptions, and his argument shows that “representationalism” holds no water, which is what many in science think.

    Not only that, but his ideas work against most of science, since it goes beyond experience. We do not experience atoms, we do not experience the Big Bang or inflation of the universe, we do not experience genotypes, and we do not experience electromagnetic fields. These things are beyond experience, and thus something that we cannot affirm, even though science invokes these “polite fictions”.

    He is like the Pyrrohian skeptics in that, we can only know experiences, which is based on what is present to our senses. So he says, or at least implies, we should remain agnostic to these things.

    1. allzermalmer,

      I’ve read along with Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. I acknowledge Hume was a skeptic, but I held back some of my punches in regards to his epistemology in my post. HIs attack on metaphysics via causation with the problem of induction destroys science. You intimate that in your second paragraph.

      Although moot but for the sake of good discussion, I thought Hume’s bundle theory was critical of the cogito. As I understand it–granted I’m still learning and could have misunderstood my professor–if the self is just a bundle of impressions as Hume maintains, then there is no personal identity. This seems to undermine solipsism.

      1. From what I’ve read about how Hume would handle science, he would remain agnostic on those things that are not present to the senses, and say we’re only justified in believing in theories as long as their predictions work. All predictions are based on what would be present to the senses. His talk of causation also shows that science has no right to say that there are these things that we cannot sense to be the cause of what we sense, since we can only know of “cause” by sensation. I see the billard ball move to another and make “contact” with it. I see the other billard ball move. Thus, all I can say is that there was “causation”, yet this is known through observation. When you say there is something unobserved causing what is observed, you have no right to it. So most of modern science is not talking of reality, except for what we observe.

        There is at least one problem with the “bundle theory”. He is taking the self as to be something of perception, yet perception always requires consciousness, and this consciousness would seem to be the self. You can’t find consciousness with consciousness. That is like me trying to find the microscope I am using with the microscope I’m looking through. But his bundle theory does not undermine solipsism per se. Like Russell says, “we only know sense-data.” There is only sense-data.

        1. Ah, yes. Hume argues quite forcefully via the circularity in induction that all causation is our observation of B-type events following A-type ones. Our minds irrationally just associate the two together. According to Hume, there is no “connection” between them.

          That makes sense in regards to bundle theory. A self is entailed in perception and that would undermine bundle theory. Thanks allzermalmer for your input!

          1. I actually like Hume and Berkeley a lot, and I find it interesting when people try to use Hume against some theists, since he undermines most of science itself. In fact, his whole Miracle argument is based on the very thing that he says we have no rational reason to believe, which Induction/Uniformity of Nature. So his own sceptical attitude, based on his empiricism, crushes his own argument against miracles.

            1. Epistemically, I don’t agree with Hume and his radical empiricism. His is ought/problem is very influential on my thinking in ethics. I actually haven’t studied Berkeley. =( I haven’t read Hume’s criticism of miracles, but what I’ve heard, is that it’s not very provocative.

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